Reusing and recycling office supplies extends the useful life of materials and prevents the need for further resource use and company expense. A company's environmentalism is also increasingly becoming a branding commodity and a point of corporate praise. Studies have shown that employee satisfaction is increased when they feel that their employer supports environmental initiatives. And bringing green policies to a business is an opportunity for eco-friendly education to influence workers' behaviors well beyond the walls of the office.
Setting up a company-wide recycling and reusability initiative requires research and preparation to determine which office supplies are recyclable, which are not, and how to start an effective program.
Office Supplies That Are Recyclable
Most items within eyesight of anyone's office desk can be recycled. In fact, with a little research, one might discover just how useless their office trash bin is. Even materials one may never have considered recycling, like Styrofoam or the mats beneath their chairs, can be given new life at a recycling plant. Common recyclable office materials include:
- Office furniture
- Empty glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans
- White office paper, with or without staples
- Toner and ink
- Chair mats
- Light bulbs
- Cardboard boxes
- Computer equipment
The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offer guidance on recyclable office goods, as do local waste haulers and municipalities.
Office Supplies That Are Not Recyclable and What to Do With Them
Despite the large amounts of office materials that are recyclable, it is important to note which ones are not. Simply tossing everything into the recycle bin and letting the recycler sort it hurts the efficiency of recycling plants. Soiled food wrappers, for instance, can spread food waste onto other recyclables, requiring all items to be removed by hand or else the entire batch of material will be contaminated. Some common office items that cannot be recycled include:
- Food wrappers, including yogurt cups
- Paper cups
- Ceramic mugs or dishes
- Post-It notes
- Padded envelopes
- Rubber bands
- Three-ring binders
- Adhesive tape
- Carbon paper
- Wax paper
- Pressure-sensitive labels
- Plastic or metal binders
Just because an item is not recyclable does not mean that it should be immediately trashed after one use. Many office supplies can be reused or repurposed multiple times over. Knowing when to recycle, trash, or reuse something can mean the difference between a sustainable office environment and a wasteful one.
How to Start an Office Recycling Program
Starting an office recycling program can be as easy as speaking to one's supervisor or HR manager. If the financial cost and environmental benefits are presented, most managers will welcome such a program. The important part is getting one's colleagues to support the idea. Gathering coworkers to help define an office policy and how to implement it can ensure that a recycling initiative is well-planned before it is presented to the entire company.
More Ideas for Recycling and Reusing Office Supplies
A successful office recycling program requires clear rule communication and a distributed understanding of the purpose behind each rule. There are four main areas where simple habitual changes can turn around the sustainability of an entire office.
Break the Paper Chain
A typical office worker trashes approximately two pounds of paper products daily
. Multiplied throughout the office, that adds up to quite a pile of paper. Fortunately, a lot of paper use can be avoided with a change of mindset. Instead of printing office memos or hard-copy meeting packets, consider sending an email with the information. Document drafts could also be edited directly on computers rather than on a printed hard copy. Hard-copy documents that require distribution can be scanned in
and distributed electronically.
If printing is required, first, determine the printed document's purpose. If the paper isn't for a formal document (most aren't), it can be printed double-sided on lower-quality or recycled paper. Sheets previously printed on one side can be reused for informal documents or faxes by simply flipping them over and printing on the back. Even after it has been sent through the printer twice, a used sheet is excellent for writing notes, phone messages, or other scrap-paper purposes
. Small changes like these can significantly reduce an office's paper waste.
- Five Ways to Reduce Your Paper Consumption at the Office: This article lists five helpful ways that office paper waste can be limited daily.
- 14 Ways to Reuse Paper: Who knew that used paper was still so useful? Recycle Nation lists 14 ways to use paper products long after the first printing.
- How to Edit a PDF: Learning to edit a PDF digitally so you don't have to print it out and mark it up with a pen can save thousands of pieces of paper a year.
- 22 Ways to Reuse Paper: These ideas can encourage workers to repurpose their paper trash in the office or at home.
- Six Tips for Adopting Eco-Friendly Printing Practices: Eco-friendly printing goes beyond sending fewer emails, as explained in this thorough article on printing sustainably.
Reuse General Office Items
Old office items can usually be reused or repurposed multiple times over. Old binders, paper clips, rubber bands, and office folders are all often unnecessarily trashed in the modern office. Creating a culture of reusability will encourage workers to think twice before tossing supplies that can be used again. Similarly, boxes
and packing supplies, like Styrofoam pellets, can be reused over and over again. And used printer paper can be shredded and used as packing paper filler
The office kitchen or break room is another area where waste is prevalent. Taking an ecological inventory of the office break room can help highlight areas needing environmental improvement. For example, instead of disposable plates, cups, and plastic utensils, office workers can donate old dishes, mugs, and cutlery to build a sustainable communal supply. Don't forget the impact of the break room's smaller eco-nightmares as well. Bulk coffee creamers and sugar can eliminate wastebasket-filling individual packets. Replacing plastic drink stirrers with wooden stirrers and swapping ecologically disastrous plastic straws
for paper ones (or eliminating straws altogether) can also play a major role in reducing microplastic pollution
- Five Items to Reuse at Work: Duke University reviews five reusable office items that can reduce unnecessary waste.
- How to Get Your Colleagues to Wash Their Dishes: When setting up a sustainable office kitchen, follow these tips to make sure that it remains a clean and sustainable space.
- Office Coffee: Reducing the Waste: An ecological inventory of an office's morning coffee routine can lead to a reckoning that causes a shift in office culture.
Monitor the Supply Cabinet
The office supply cabinet, the source of all new materials, is an important place to encourage reusability. Limiting access to new supplies to a single office manager discourages wasteful, unnecessary trips for new supplies by requiring a worker to speak to a person to get access to them. Additionally, having one person responsible for the supply cabinet allows for better tracking of supply use. Perhaps a pattern of wastefulness can be discovered, and future sustainability efforts can then be focused on ways of reusing a particularly overused supply.
Supply cabinets are also great places to reinforce office supply reuse with signage
. A sign offering ideas for repurposing commonly wasted supplies can disperse this information without cumbersome office meetings. Placing a bin of mismatched pens outside of the cabinet can also be a good strategy to reduce waste, as it encourages people to swap, rather than ditch, pens they dislike.
- Tips and Tricks for Managing Office Supply Inventory: These tips for keeping track of office inventory can transform any office manager into an expert at supply management.
- How to Manage Office Supplies and Maintain an Inventory: Read more about the most efficient way to manage managing office supplies.
To Succeed, Get Everyone Involved
In order for coworkers to buy into a new recycling and reusability policy, it may be necessary to hold a companywide meeting
. It's important to explain the benefits of these new eco-friendly practices in the initial presentation. Once the mindset of reusability is instilled, it will start to gain momentum
. Explain that office supply savings can translate to job security or even contribute to end-of-the-year bonuses. To show savings in action throughout the year and help maintain sustainability awareness, an office manager could throw parties or bring midday treats paid for from the unused supply budget.
It's smart to also educate office workers on the environmental reasons for being sustainable. Many people are simply uninformed about the impacts of their habitual waste. Facts and figures
can help highlight how small acts can add up to large impacts. After all, environmental change starts at the local level with individuals, expanding from there to the office and world at large.
- Nine Easy Ways Companies Can Save Money by Going Green: Entrepreneur investigates how a business can save money through environmental initiatives.
- How Much Money Paper Waste Costs a Business: A company's paper waste is not only bad for the environment, but it may be costing them money as well.